Speeding away from Mountain Home AFB and all the structure a day spent with active duty military can bring along US-20 E through high desert and into the Rocky Mountains on a Monday afternoon during business hours felt like the most freedom I’d had in years. The highway wound through rocky hills flanked by “Game Crossing” and “Watch For Stock” warning signs along with nighttime speed limit admonitions; there were multiple pull-offs with signs telling passersby that this was part of the Oregon Trial or an old gold mine or just a nice place to pull off and enjoy a scenic view. I was headed to Ketchum, Idaho. I had 100 miles to go.
As my miles to go dropped to nearly single digits, signs of civilization appeared around me: saloons, restaurants, chair lifts, a large TEDx banner hung above the street. I was entering Ketchum. I passed the Pioneer Saloon, where I planned to have dinner, based on the recommendation from the 1000 Places to See Before You Die book I always take when I travel.
I pulled into Ketchum Cemetery a few minutes later. It was much smaller than I imagined it would be–basically a single loop of paved surface with tombstones on both sides of it. One car was leaving as I pulled in and slowly drove along, looking at the names on the stones. I stopped and pulled up the Ketchum Community Library website on my phone and zoomed in on a section about the Ernest Hemingway festival, including a map of the city with points of interest for fans of his writings. For the cemetery where I’d parked, it said the grave “can be found centrally located, under large evergreen trees, with family and friends buried around him.” I looked up and to the left of my rented Jeep Renegade. There was only one area that fit the description, so I drove another few hundred feet, put it in “park,” and walked toward a large, flat stone with liquor bottles, a pen, a shotgun shell, a book, and a bunch of pennies on top of it.
I was here.
Here lay a man who’d lived life fuller than I ever would. Sure, I’d hunted big game (a whitetail deer to a 100# high school freshman is certainly “big game”). I’d been to the San Fermin Festival and run with the bulls in Pamplona before watching those 6 bulls get slaughtered in the same arena that afternoon (but lamented the fate of the bulls instead of reveling in the skill of the matadors). I’d sat at the cafes of Saint‑Germain‑des‑Prés in Paris (with 3 children, not Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, or Ezra Pound). I’d been a regular at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West (for a 4-day weekend). I’d saltwater fished in the Gulf of Mexico (from a pier). I’d lifted wounded soldiers on olive green canvas litters off ambulances in combat (in Iraq, not quite The Great War). I’d written about wartime experiences that’d been published and won accolades (not a Pulitzer). But these were just a fraction of his adventures.
He lived a life most men long to live to live–that, in small part, I’ve tried to live– and he had the added benefit of being recognized and paid for it. Millions of readers, a stack of accolades, and the respect of countless men. And yet, he killed himself. It wrecked me.
A man from the one building on the property walked outside and started coming toward where I stood under a tree in the rain. By this time, I’d lit the pipe I bought in Paris just a few months prior and was enjoying having something to do with my hands besides wiping my eyes. Once he got close enough to see my face, he turned around and walked back toward the building.
I got back in the Jeep and drove to the Hemingway Memorial in Sun Valley–a bronze bust of his profile high above a mountain stream, surrounded by tree leaves. The inscription was from an eulogy he’d written for a friend in 1939, now used to honor him:
Best of all he loved the fall
The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods
Leaves floating on the trout streams
And above the hills
The high blue windless skies
…Now he will be a part of them forever
I drove to the Pioneer Saloon, where I saw one of his guns and pictures of him on the walls; I drank his namesake margarita with a rib-eye steak and Idaho potatoes.
It was getting dark, and I had 100 miles of wet winding roads to get to Mountain Home. I paused in front of 3 black and white photos of Papa next to the door before deciding it was time to exit.
It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the restaurant and drove back to the hotel in the rain.